The Lost King

Amid all the weird and predictable frivolity of Elvis Week 2002, a curious seminar was held at the Fogelman Executive Center at the University of Memphis on August 15. The panelists of "Is Elvis History? 2002 and Beyond" included famed music critic and keynote speaker Greil Marcus; Presley's most celebrated biographer, Peter Guralnick; Sun Records founder Sam Phillips; and a dozen or so lesser-known luminaries. As the seminar's title implied and the official itinerary for Elvis Week 2002 stated overtly, the panelists were on hand to discuss Presley's "past and future historical meaning." As is turned out, that hardly encompassed the full range of what transpired, but it was the plan going in.

The audience -- most of whom paid $100 for admittance -- consisted of a handful of newspersons and approximately 140 hard-core Elvis fans who didn't seem overly interested in an intellectualized examination of Elvis Presley's place in the annals of American history. To them, as well as to the 40,000 or so additional fans who gathered in Memphis in mid-August to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Presley's death, Elvis's place in history -- American or otherwise -- had long since been settled. The basic terms of that settlement as it presently exists are very simple, really. Here's what the uninitiated need to know:

First of all, Elvis was and always will be the undisputed King of Rock and Roll. What else could possibly explain the thousands of perfectly lucid Elvis junkies hanging around Graceland these past five days, or the other 60,000 paying customers who traipse through Presley's colorfully appointed 23-room mansion each year, making it, after the White House, the second-most visited home in the United States? What else explains Elvis's recent reappearance in mainstream pop culture via the animated Disney flick Lilo & Stitch and the unlikely chart-topping success of Dutch DJ Junkie XL's remix of "A Little Less Conversation," an otherwise forgettable ditty that Presley tossed off in 1967? Sales of Elvis's records (singles, LPs, EPs and CDs) have now surpassed a billion, which amounts to just about one record for every man, woman and child living on mainland China. Even now, 25 years after his untimely death, Elvis is loved, revered and, in isolated cases, worshiped by right-thinking human beings the world over. According to his fans, only one thing explains all that: Again, Elvis was and always will be the King. And that's his place in history.

Undeterred by this sort of unassailable logic, a gray-haired and casually attired Greil Marcus stepped to the podium of the Fogelman Center to deliver the seminar's keynote address. Marcus is no dummy, nor is he a sentimental fool. His chapter on Elvis in his 1975 book Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music still stands as a wonderfully measured, unsurpassed milestone of Presley-related cultural critique. Nonetheless, among Elvis fans who are acquainted with his work, he is not considered a true celebrant, at least not a celebrant of their stripe. He is, in fact, regarded as something of a party pooper. Certainly, his address at Elvis Week 2002 did nothing to convince fans otherwise.

Marcus's opening remarks included his contention that all of the hoopla in Memphis surrounding the 25th anniversary of Elvis's death was one colossal "media mirage" cynically manufactured by the brain trust of Elvis Presley Enterprises, Inc., the business entity headed by Elvis's daughter, Lisa Marie, that manages the Presley estate and the commercial licensing of all Presley product. He then proceeded to criticize Presley's ex-wife, Priscilla -- who, along with Lisa Marie and EPE CEO Jack Soden, is largely to blame for the aforementioned media mirage -- for her transparently exploitative plans to adapt her lifeless memoir, Elvis and Me, to the Broadway stage. None of this talk endeared Marcus to the fans, of course, but at least he hadn't yet laid into Elvis himself. That soon changed.

The critic began speculating on the disappearance of Elvis from popular culture -- Lilo & Stitch and novelty dance remixes notwithstanding. He discussed Presley's early embrace of black culture and then his apparent dismissal of it not long after fame came calling. Where was Memphis's most famous citizen when Coretta Scott King marched through town four days after her husband was assassinated there, during a bitter sanitation workers' strike, in 1968? He was on the West Coast, Marcus replied, answering his own question, overseeing the installation of a new gate in front of his Belair home. "He had changed the world, but he had become a creature who couldn't be changed by it," Marcus intoned, thereby implying that Presley had been either unconcerned with or simply oblivious to the civil rights movement. Either way, according to Marcus, such negligence amounted to circumstantial evidence. It was proof, in other words, if any further proof was needed by then, that Elvis was no longer a player -- not in any meaningful or relevant sense -- on the American cultural scene. Then he delivered his verdict: "When you've made history and then you leave history, history takes its revenge on you."

Thus constituted Marcus's admirable stab at explaining Elvis's popular legacy today as a fat, wasted, supremely narcissistic hayseed who left behind nothing of consequence to a world that, unknowingly, would remain forever in his debt.

At that point, the fans might have exacted a degree of satisfaction from the fact that it was they -- and they alone -- who had never lost sight of Elvis's enduring significance to Western culture. But instead, they turned on Marcus as if he were a latter-day Judas compelled by Satan himself to betray all that was inherently good and righteous about their leader. His music brought joy to millions, one interrogator rose and declared. Why can't you just leave it at that? Isn't that enough? How do you explain the powerful social message contained in "In the Ghetto"? another asked. Faced with these questions and others like them, Marcus didn't retreat so much as surrender. This was clearly not a crowd that harbored much in the way of intellectual curiosity. He wasn't condemning Elvis, he explained; he was only seeking to understand his withdrawal and subsequent disappearance from history itself. No harm intended.

"Poppycock!" cried the disciples.

Early in his career, Marcus assured them, Elvis broke bounds. On his earliest records, "you hear him communicating pleasures for which there was no language but his own." He rocketed beyond the limited expectations of his own impoverished heritage and ascended to creative and aesthetic heights previously unimagined. Through his sheer native genius, he delivered to the masses a vast array of possibilities and choices that continue to shape popular culture to this day. In summary, Marcus said, Elvis was once a man of great courage. And he was hardly trying to suggest otherwise.

The conclusion of his address was met with a brief smattering of courteous applause and nothing more. After a short break wherein attendees could be heard voicing their displeasure with Marcus's vulgarity and insolence, the various panels convened and, but for a passing aberration or two during the next six hours, talk turned decidedly lighter and more reverential. This was what the fans had laid down their money for. Wry and sickly ol' Sam Phillips spun a few tired yarns about Elvis's early days at Sun, then assured the crowd that Elvis's spirit was still very much alive and that he loved each and every one of his fans dearly, and that, if he could have, he would have played every show for nothing. No one in the room -- except perhaps Greil Marcus -- appeared to find Phillips's comments the least bit silly or far-fetched. Sure, Elvis would have liked to perform for free...if only the Colonel had allowed it. Of course Elvis didn't willingly make all those shameful movies in the '60s: He was forced to make them. And so the usual rationalizations and uplifting rhetoric went, onward through the day.

The fans that gathered in Memphis for Elvis Week 2002 are similar in nature to fans of most any entertainer. That is, they tend to radically idealize the objects of their fixations. But Elvis is different from most entertainers currently being idolized in that 1) he's dead, and 2) the grand magnitude of his celebrity is incomparable to all but a small number of entertainers who have ever lived. There really was no one like him. The fans are correct on that count. He was charismatic in ways that can't be quantified. For that matter, so was much of the music that he recorded during the course of his 23 years in show business. There was much about him to admire.

In many ways, Elvis Week 2002 was exactly the sort of demented, hyper-commercialized circus you'd imagine. There were dance and pool parties, reunions of Elvis's old cronies, karate tournaments, tribute shows and impersonators everywhere, all of them happy to croon a few bars and pose for snapshots. The fans were omnipresent in their Elvis T-shirts, buttons, hats, banners and commemorative wristwatches. At its core, Elvis Week was a mass celebration and reconfirmation of Elvis's enduring presence in the world. But, ultimately, it celebrated only a carefully constructed image, not a man. No one of sane mind can argue convincingly against the notion that Elvis was a giant and vastly influential figure in twentieth-century and even 21st-century American culture. But it's how Elvis is -- or should be -- remembered that continues to be debated. They're both worthwhile inquiries.

On the evening of August 14, an Elvis impersonator who looked to be somewhere in his early twenties delivered a memorable show at Memphis's Overton Park Shell. The impersonator's name was Jamie Aaron Kelley. He was from the outskirts of Boone, Iowa, and he was very good at his business.

There were no more than a couple hundred people at the show. Considering the almost mythical importance of the Park Shell to Elvis fans, the relatively low turnout came as a surprise.

The Overton Park Shell was constructed for $11,935 in 1936 by the Works Projects Administration and the City of Memphis as part of a $75,000 improvement program for Overton Park. It was outfitted with wooden benches for 4,000 spectators, and the venue's first show featured a performance by the Memphis City Orchestra. Elvis was himself just another fan when he went to the Shell for light opera, gospel and country shows in the late '40s and early '50s. But on July 30, 1954, he made his first appearance before a sizable crowd on the stage of the Shell, opening for country star Slim Whitman.

With his two bandmates -- guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black -- close behind him, Elvis gave a performance that day that consisted of two upbeat numbers: bluesman Arthur Crudup's "That's All Right, Mama" and Bill Monroe's bluegrass hit "Blue Moon of Kentucky," which Elvis had intuitively transformed into something that would soon be called rockabilly. Nervous and needy and wildly effusive all at once, his body quaked and shook as he sang. The crowd responded with great enthusiasm. Even Whitman was impressed.

In his biography of Presley's early years, Last Train to Memphis, Peter Guralnick quotes Elvis's girlfriend at the time, Dixie Locke, who recalls that performance and its immediate aftermath: "I don't think he [ever] thought everybody would just go crazy. I wanted to tell [some of the girls who were screaming], 'Shut up and leave him alone. What do you think you're doing here?' And I felt like all of a sudden I was not part of what he was doing. He was doing something so totally him that I was not a part of it...and he loved it."

Forty-eight years later, Jamie Aaron Kelley strode briskly onto the stage of the Overton Shell. Dressed in loose, black trousers with pink stripes up the sides, matching sport jacket and white shirt and shoes, and with his hair swept into a fine, high pompadour, he was a spitting image of Elvis, circa the mid-'50s. His mannerisms were spot-on. So was his singing. From a comfortable distance, you could easily imagine an awkward, nineteen-year-old Elvis Presley electrifying 4,000 people when he opened for Whitman and wondering afterward if he might really be able to sing for a living. You can imagine the Colonel coming along soon thereafter and telling the boy that he, the ol' Colonel, could make him a star as big as Hank Williams. And you can imagine Elvis wanting to believe that more than anything. His dreams and aspirations were unlimited. He set no bounds on the future. For a moment, he was beautiful beyond compare. It was easy to imagine that this young man on stage was the selfsame boy who laid claim to a singularly magnificent identity all those years ago and who never once for the rest of his life publicly exercised his prerogative to be anyone different. Once Elvis was made, he never became undone, not even in death.

Forty thousand fans came to Memphis in August to celebrate Elvis once again. But the sad truth that they all must bear is that he is gone now and there's no replacing him. There are only passing reminders that he was once here.


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